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Coronavirus confounds efforts to clear Santa Rosa homeless encampments on Highway 101 underpasses

A Santa Rosa plan to evict up to 60 people from a string of homeless encampments on underpasses of Highway 101 will start only after Sonoma County health officials have completed coronavirus testing this week after the infectious disease recently infiltrated the camps.

The pending clearance, now slated to start Wednesday, marks the largest and most high-profile effort to roust homeless since late January, when Sonoma County booted nearly 300 people living along a 2-mile stretch of the Joe Rodota Trail in west Santa Rosa.

Separately, late Sunday night county officials confirmed a fifth Sonoma County resident died from complications of the new coronavirus. Rohish Lal, a spokesman for the county Department of Health Services, confirmed the latest death from COVID-19 occurred earlier Sunday but had no other information. County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said the individual died at a skilled nursing center, but she didn’t know which one.

The fatality related to the infectious disease is the first here since May 11. The earlier three virus-related deaths occurred on May 3, April 10 and March 20.

Meanwhile, the city’s action coming this week to clear the homeless encampments also will signal a departure from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which recommends government entities refrain from forcibly dispersing existing groups of homeless to prevent the spread of COVID-19. City officials, though, say the camps have become increasingly dangerous, reaching a “tipping point” that must be addressed.

“We made a determination … that the conditions of the encampment at Doyle Park were so bad that we needed to offer folks services, needed to have them move away from that area,” said David Gouin, Santa Rosa housing and community services director. “Our assessment of the underpasses was the same. There are a lot of problems under there, a lot of health issues.”

Gouin said plans have been in place since late May, but delays associated with racial injustice protests downtown have pushed back the timetable. Late last week, Sonoma County added another hiccup, informing the city the encampments included two people confirmed to have COVID-19, sparking a scramble Saturday to test homeless living in the makeshift quarters on College Avenue and Sixth Street under Highway 101 to find and test anybody who has been in contact with those infected.

Two people who were tested for the highly contagious virus at the Sonoma County Jail were recently released before test results came back showing they contracted the virus. Upon release, they declined living at quarantine space set aside at Sonoma State University, Gouin said, and instead set up camp underneath the highway, intermingling with dozens of others camping there.

Santa Rosa announced the planned camp clearance - and the pause - in a prepared statement Thursday, saying the conditions in the camps had triggered the city’s homelessness encampment assistance program, the city’s way of clearing camps by offering services and contact information to those living on the streets.

The city has offered space outside Finley Community Center at College Avenue and Stony Point Road, Santa Rosa’s new outdoor tent shelter, or at a number of other homeless shelters throughout the city and county.

Workers with Catholic Charities, which runs the Finley temporary shelter, already have taken in residents from the highway underpass camps, the nonprofit’s Chief Program Officer Jennielynn Holmes said.

“Wherever the encampments are, that’s where we go,” Holmes said. “We have spent a lot of time working with the individuals underneath there.”

Holmes said between Finley, Samuel L. Jones Hall homeless shelter and other shelters in the county, there’s enough space to take in everyone who wants services.

Catholic Charities also helps the county run its shelter for at-risk homeless individuals at SSU, helping to isolate and protect residents 65 or older from the ravages of COVID-19.

The virus has proven to be an efficient killer for the old and the sick, with 80% of the COVID-19 deaths in the United States occurring among populations 65 or older, according to the CDC.

Along with the fifth death, the county reported 32 more cases Sunday, marking the highest single-day case total since the first resident infection emerged March 2. The previous high-water mark, 30 cases, occurred a little more than a week ago on June 13. There were 18 new infections on Saturday.

As of Sunday night, the county has 885 total COVID-19 infections, and 514 people have recovered.

For the roughly 3,000 county residents without permanent homes, the virus has proven to be a focal point for fear, sparking an unprecedented demand for services in early spring, according to top local homelessness officials and advocates. But COVID-19 testing was slow to catch on. County health officials ramped up testing efforts countywide in the past couple of months, and now nearly 40,000 of the county’s 500,000 residents have been tested for the contagion. The overall test positivity rate has been holding steady at only 2%.

Homeless residents living in shelters had to wait a month for testing after the first Sonoma County infection emerged March 2. And this weekend marks likely the first targeted testing throughout the pandemic in which county public health workers went directly to the street encampments to test homeless.

The county’s aggressive testing regimen focused on those living underneath Highway 101 will continue through Tuesday, Santa Rosa officials said.

Ahead of that process, county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase and the county itself filed a lawsuit Friday against Crossing the Jordan, alleging the homeless-serving nonprofit has failed to help county officials identify possible close contacts of people living on the streets who have tested positive for COVID-19.

In its lawsuit, Mase and the county allege Crossing the Jordan defendants “have refused, stalled, delayed, and avoided providing the requested information; making (the county’s) efforts to avoid the spread of COVID-19 difficult and nearly impossible.”

The county is seeking an injunction from a local judge to force Crossing the Jordan officials to cooperate and provide names and contact information of all residents the nonprofit serves, as well as all employees of the nonprofit.

A phone call Sunday to Crossing the Jordan went to a voicemail message saying the mailbox was full.

It was unclear Sunday whether the county lawsuit was connected to the testing efforts among encampments near Highway 101, but the complaint pinpoints last Wednesday as a key date in the county’s efforts to obtain information from Crossing the Jordan for contact tracing among the homeless population.

A Sonoma County health department spokesman Rohish Lal did not return messages Sunday seeking comment on the county’s testing efforts following the work over the weekend.

Gouin said some of those living under the highway may be offered housing for at-risk homeless the county has set up at SSU as part of a $5 million contract with the college to provide a site for alternate care in case there’s a surge of COVID-19 infections and local hospitals have to relocated other patients there.

Other homeless would be offered space at Finley, Sam Jones or other shelters. Still others would be asked to keep in touch with city outreach teams, and they’ll be offered a retail gift card as an incentive to do so, Gouin said.

“We’re addressing the health and safety of the existing encampment, in concert with the health and safety of what might be a COVID-19 exposure, in partnership with the county,” Gouin said. “We’re talking again tomorrow (Monday), and Tuesday, just to see where the test results are.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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